Have you ever bragged about someone else? Maybe you’ve told someone how beautiful and talented your spouse or partner is and how fortunate you feel to have him or her in your life. Or maybe you’ve boasted about a gifted teacher you once had, or about how sensitive and helpful your doctor is. Or maybe you’ve taken delight (without being too proud) in talking about your children or your grandchildren, and how truly exceptional they are. I like Garrison Keillor’s boast about Lake Wobegon: “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
From time to time we have opportunities to do this, to describe to someone else a remarkable person we have come to know and love. We are happy to “testify” to what we have seen and known in this person. We “witness” to our experience of them, and we enthusiastically commend them to others.
This theme of witnessing or giving testimony to what one has seen or heard is prevalent in John’s gospel. The principal witness in the Gospel is Jesus himself, who testifies to what he has seen and heard of the One he calls his “Father” (John 3:31b-32a). He knows the Father and reveals to the world the Father’s nature and will. “No one has ever seen God,” writes the Evangelist, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
Just as Jesus testifies to the Father, so too in John’s Gospel there are a series of witnesses who testify to Jesus. Today’s gospel mentions one of the most important of these witnesses, John the Baptist. John sees Jesus and declares what has been revealed to him: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John points away from himself and what he is doing to Jesus and to what Jesus is doing. Jesus is “a man who ranks ahead of me,” says John (John 1:30). He is the One on whom “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” (John 1:32). “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34). For this reason I came baptizing with water, says John the Baptist, “that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31). John boasts not in his own accomplishments or character, but in Jesus.
There are other witnesses in John’s Gospel as well:
- Andrew is a witness: “We have found the Messiah!” he tells his brother, Simon Peter (John 1:41).
- The Samaritan woman is a witness: “He told me everything I have ever done,” she says, and brings her neighbors to see and believe in him (John 4:39).
- The lame man beside the pool is a witness: The Gospel writer tells us that he “went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well” (John 5:15).
- The blind man is a witness: “If this man were not from God,” he declares to the disbelieving Pharisees, “he could do nothing” (John 9:33).
- Martha of Bethany is a witness: In the presence of her friends and neighbors she declares her faith in Jesus. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” she says (John 11:27).
- Mary Magdalene is a witness: “[She] went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord;’ and she told them [what he had said to her]” (John 20:18).
- Thomas is a witness: In the company of his fellow disciples, he declares his faith, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
- The Beloved Disciple is a witness: The Gospel concludes with these words: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).
Witnesses, all of them. Each pointing away from himself or herself to testify to Jesus. Each articulating his/her own experience of Jesus, drawing from what they themselves have seen and heard. Each stepping aside to recognize the One who ranks before us all in importance. Each proclaiming his or her own unique version of the “good news.” That is what a witness does.
We too are witnesses. Joining the author of the First Letter of John we say to the world, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the world of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it… We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (I John 1:1-3).
We witness to Jesus. He is the one who is “close to the Father’s heart [and] who has made him known” to us (John 1:18). He is the one who “ranks ahead of [us] because he was before [us]” (John 1:30). Through him we have come to know God as Love and ourselves as beloved children of God. “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are” (I John 3:1). Witnesses to the Father’s unconditional and always-faithful love. Witnesses to the Son who came to bring us light and life. Witnesses to the transformation that has taken place and is taking place in our own lives, individually and collectively. Witnesses not to ourselves, but to Jesus.
Not long ago I had occasion to listen to a student from a local university. After we had spoken for a few minutes, she paused, leaned forward and said, “Tell me what you know.” She wasn’t seeking a theological discourse or an explanation of the various doctrines and beliefs of the Christian faith. She wanted to know what I knew about God. She wanted to know what my first-hand experience of God was. She wanted to know if I could help her experience and know God.
To be a witness requires authentic first-hand experience. No one will accept the testimony of someone who admits that he was not actually present at the event, but only learned about it from others. No one will believe someone who admits they’ve never actually met the person being discussed. If you are to be a credible witness, you have to be able to speak with authenticity and authority; you have to have some experience to report, some first-hand knowledge to share. Others can tell us about Jesus or point us towards God, but we will not be effective witnesses until we can say something about our own experience. We don’t have to be eloquent; we only have to be authentic.
In order to have something to testify about, we need first-hand experience. And we can only get first-hand experience if we accept the invitation to “come and see.” It’s only when we follow after him and accept his invitation to spend some time in his company, listening to him and learning from him, that we will be able to become authentic witnesses. That’s what these two disciples of John did. They followed after him, responded to his invitation to “Come and see,” stayed with him, and came to believe. So profoundly were their lives impacted that they went and brought others to him. They began to brag to others about him. They became witnesses to the gospel, proclaimers of the “good news.”
God’s word for us today is one of invitation and command. “Come and see,” Jesus tells us, and then go into all the world, testifying to what you have seen and heard concerning the word of life. Go to the poor and tell them the good news. Go to the blind and help them see. Go to the oppressed and set them free. Proclaim God’s favor to everyone you meet. “You are my witnesses.”
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